What is it about the samurai that captivates Westerners? The armor and swords, the reverent attitude and the reputation for supreme competence in warfare are all pretty impressive, but they don’t get to the heart of it. I believe it might be that at the core of every samurai is the code of bushido, the feudal Japanese equivalent of chivalry, with its one edict above all else: If the time should call for it, protect your lord with your life.
That self-abnegation in service of something greater than oneself is the question at the heart of the works of generation after generation of directors as they revisit the samurai film. And it’s why we’re so excited to present Paste’s list of the 50 Best Samurai Films of All Time.
This is a broad genre, just from a the standpoint of how much history falls within it. The American Western falls more or less within the bounds of the 19th Century, yet samurai films offer centuries of warfare, palace intrigue and a drawn-out end of an era for the history and film buff to chew on. Samurai flicks really have something for everyone. Fans of period pieces will love the intricate set design, costuming and portrayals of towering historical figures in the midst of epic conflict. If operatic drama is more your speed, you can sit back and watch committed actors dine upon lavish scenery. Action junkies get to watch riveting combat with cool-looking swords. And fans of film history in general will delight in tracing the lineage of some of the West’s cinematic touchstones to their forebears in the East, as well as some stellar Eastern adaptations of Western canon.
It is with solemn bushido reverence that I invite you to join us as we dive into 50 films that exemplify this mightiest of genres. We’ve formed this list with a careful eye toward the classic jidaigeki (Age of Civil War period piece) and chambara (swordfighting) films that typify the genre in Japan, but also to some of the weird and subversive outliers that challenge audience expectations or the mythic idea of the samurai code. And because this genre is so deeply steeped in the history of its homeland, we’ve also arranged this list in a loose sort of historical chronological order and added some context that might help clarify the settings of some of the movies.
In the interest of keeping things tight, we’ve excluded anime entries, but for a definitive list that includes some animated samurai action, check out Paste’s 100 Best Anime Films.
The samurai weren’t just warriors in colorful armor, but a whole societal class that arose to support the mounted archers who dominated the battlefields of medieval Japan. Most of the movies we’re looking at here occur after the rise of the shogunate—a central government based on a military dictatorship run by the shogun, rather than the emperor. The Muromachi Period encompasses the bulk of the movies in this list, but this part deals with the handful that occur in earlier times, before the ceaseless age of war that followed. For the purposes of our list, here are the films dealing with samurai before the rise of the shogun (and the horrific century of bloody civil war that followed).
Director: Akira Kurosawa
We’ll be hearing much more from Akira Kurosawa throughout this list, so it’s worth it to have a look at one of his earliest films—one created as the United States took over Japan in the wake of the Second World War. This film was actually censored by U.S. officials for a number of years for its portrayal of samurai. It’s hard to imagine it being considered so offensive. The slim 60-minute movie tells a story set in A.D. 1185, when Japan’s rule truly went over to the shogunate system. The brother of the shogun tries to escape the latter’s attempts to have him arrested and killed, but his flight to safety requires that he and his six loyal samurai dress as Buddhist monks and attempt to bluff their way past suspicious guardsmen.
That’s about all there is to the story, which unfolds across just three locations and mostly focuses on the deep tension of the young lord’s retinue as they desperately bullshit their way past the shogun’s border patrol. What’s interesting is the wealth of Kurosawa hallmarks that any fan of his will recognize—the bumbling/helpful/mugging peasant, the tension between propriety and pragmatism, wide shots that take in the movement and emotion of many actors all at once contrasted with the close-ups that focus solely on the face of one principal character while no dialogue is spoken and yet everything comes across. Kurosawa would go on to hammer out decade after decade of indelible film classics and indispensable samurai films. Check out this short meditation to see how much he already knew 15 years before he even made Yojimbo. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa
What does it mean to be a good man? Does it mean unwavering fealty to your lord and land, an indomitable will to carry out your duties despite risk to your own safety? Does it mean devotion to your wife, and loyalty to her above all others? What happens when the first man grows jealous of the second man? In Gate of Hell, goodness is put to the test when a supposedly good man, the samurai Morito (Kazuo Hasegawa), falls in mad, impassioned love with Kesa (Machiko Kyo, best recognized for her stellar work in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon), and so forces her to help him plot the death of her own beloved husband, Wataru (Isao Yamagata). Wataru, in stark contrast to Morito’s stereotypically macho posture, damn near worships his wife but never quite strikes us as a match for Morito’s masculine strength. All the same, he proves the better of the two by modern and even archaic definitions of manliness, while Morito proves himself to be something of a monster in spite of his martial virtues. Gate of Hell, one of Japan’s very first color films, is a gorgeous, trim, brisk picture, but more than its imagery and choreography, what sticks with me about the film is its concise, muted dissection of what honor and manhood are really supposed to be about. —Andy Crump
Director: Akira Kurosawa
What you get out of Rashomon likely reflects what you bring into it, but it might help to bring a basic grasp of cubism to the proceedings. When you hear the word “cubist,” your brain probably goes right to Picasso and Braque, but in cinema it ought to head straight to Kurosawa, who in essence gave birth to the movie version of cubism with Rashomon by performing a feat as deceptively simple as filtering a single narrative through multiple character perspectives; the more Kurosawa filters that narrative, the more the narrative changes, until we can no longer determine which to trust and which to write off. In the trial that comprises the bulk of the film’s plot, who is telling the truth? The bandit, the man accused of murdering a samurai and raping his wife? The wife? The samurai himself, summoned to the trial via spirit medium? Even when Kurosawa generously reveals what actually happened when the bandit crossed paths with the samurai and his wife via the post-trial testimony of a humble woodcutter, we’re still left to wrestle with the question of who, and what, we should believe. Kurosawa’s technical mastery is always awesome to behold, but in Rashomon, it’s his gift for utterly blurring reality that dazzles most. —Andy Crump
By the mid-14th Century, the Ashikaga shogunate had come to rule Japan’s central government. In A.D. 1467, the Ashikaga entered into a 10-year war with other clans seeking to dislodge it, kicking off an age of civil wars that totally fumbled the ball and essentially robbed Japan of central governance. A system of violent, treacherous feudalism arose that created a sort of golden age of the samurai. Sengoku Jidai—this age of civil war—lasted a blood-soaked century and a half. Films set in this period feature massive armies clashing on horseback, devious clan warfare and intrigue, castles under siege, and earth-shattering historical epics written in noble blood.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is more than merely that, even if English majors will call each plot point before it happens. Toshiro Mifune stars as Washizu, a loyal samurai retainer driven to ambition and then ruin after receiving a prophecy from an evil spirit while wandering the aftermath of a decisive battle. Informed by Japan’s theatrical traditions—bold and exaggerated gestures, facial expressions, and movement—it’s an interpretation of a Western story that fits into its Eastern setting and style as if it always belonged there. The stark black-and-white photography Kurosawa employs here, more even than his better-remembered samurai films like Yojimbo or The Seven Samurai, demonstrates how much care he puts into each shot, whether it requires the exact timing and coordination of hundreds of extras, intricate blocking as a single character succumbs to madness or despair, or framing a motionless evil spirit leering menacingly in the midst of a fog-shrouded forest. Throne of Blood is the rare film that can function as both a love letter to its source material and a unique work of art in its own right. And it puts other, lazier adaptations of Shakespeare to shame, too. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Akira Kurosawa
It’s sort of unfortunate that The Hidden Fortress is chiefly known in the West for being one of George Lucas’ inspirations for Star Wars, because there’s much, much more to love about this rousing adventure film. Initially told from the point of view of two bumbling, quarrelsome civilians (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) who are lured into the thick of a war zone by the promise of gold, the story soon finds them running afoul of two opposing clans. But you’ll unquestionably recognize some of the story beats: There is a noble samurai general (Toshiro Mifune, galloping full tilt to slay opponents and engaging a rival in an honor duel with spears) and a princess in disguise fighting to oppose an overwhelming army (Misa Uehara). Kurosawa’s camera work, especially in the scenes leading up to combat and those showcasing the explosiveness as it unfolds, is as sharp as ever. And, like its cinematic successor, it ends with a triumph, though a small one, that promises the good guys will fight on. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s insane popularity in the West has as much to do with his keen understanding of its traditional storytelling as his virtuoso skill and workmanlike insistence on excellence, and Ran showcases both these facets of the director when he was arguably at the height of his influence. Ran retells the story of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with the crucial opening scene featuring the lord divvying up his province amongst three quarrelsome samurai sons rather than three daughters. Devotees of the Bard will recognize the story beats and delight at the Japanese period-piece spin on the classic tale, and history buffs will find that it translates disturbingly well to Japan’s chaotic Age of Civil War. With sweeping operatic performances, hundreds of extras engaged in epic battle with sword, bow and firearm, and some of Kurosawa’s most arresting imagery, it’s essential viewing for any film buff. Like the best tragedy, we know exactly how Lord Ichimonji’s story will end. Kurosawa’s spellbinding direction ensures we nonetheless can’t look away. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Haruki Kadokawa
Based on a ferocious rivalry between two larger-than-life historical samurai, Heaven and Earth is a lavish war movie. Portraying young samurai Kagetora (Takaaki Enoki) as an earnest nobleman seeking to protect his kingdom from the invading warlord Takeda Shingen (Masahiko Tsugawa), the story follows the ups and downs of his leadership. This is a movie in which mighty armies of cavalry clash, and one man’s resolve hardens into bitter ferocity. After the maneuvering, the treachery and the clash of armies, it all builds to exactly the inevitable showdown you hope it does: Two guys in head-to-toe armor with swords slugging it out on horseback in the middle of a shallow river. It’s a period piece about the age of civil war with lots of action, hundreds of extras who needed to spend hours getting into armor and mounting horses, and very few frills. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Tomu Uchida
A samurai’s lord kills himself. Granted a last minute reprieve from joining his lord in death, he elects for a late life of earthly pleasures. He flatly states the chivalric samurai code of bushido is for fools when a family members demands he take his own life and end the embarrassment to his clan. And yet, he’s persuaded to take up his spear again when he’s offered the chance to redeem himself by participating in one of the pivotal battles of the Age of Civil War. It’s difficult to tell if Tomu Uchida is extolling the virtues of the warrior spirit or laying bare the foolishness of samurai pageantry—and it may be up to the viewer to decide. Uchida, a well-known director from Japan’s silent film era in the ’20s and ’30s, remains largely unknown in the West, even though his films are considered foundational to the samurai genre. Uchida was stranded in occupied Manchuria for nearly a decade following the Second World War, a time of his life about which little has been written. His pre-war work barely survives and by all accounts is filled with weird stylistic and political inconsistency. If you can find it, The Master Spearman (originally Sake to onna to yari, “Sake, Woman and Spear” in Japanese) is one of the latter films from a Japanese director whose work informed those who would come after him. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Akira Kurosawa
The film’s title means “Shadow Warrior,” a truly badass phrase that roughly translates as a decoy for an important leader. This production, mounted with the aid of funding from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, almost had as much drama behind the scenes as the sweeping Sengoku Jidai war epic that made it onto the celluloid. Lucas and Coppola stepped in when Toho Studios couldn’t come up with the money to finish the picture, and Shintaro Katsu of Zatoichi fame was originally slated as the star, but reportedly angered Kurosawa by bringing his own camera crew in an attempt to document the director’s work. Tatsuya Nakadai would step into the dual role of historical warlord Takeda Shingen and the lowly criminal, rescued from crucifixion by Shingen’s brother, who looks exactly like him.
Kagemusha is a massive war epic, but it’s also a study of a man having greatness thrust upon him and choosing to find meaning in a life he’s essentially inherited. When Shingen is mortally wounded in the course of his war for supremacy over Japan, he orders that his decoy take his place and his death be kept secret for three years for the good of the clan. Overwhelmed at first, the decoy soon adopts the slain lord’s mannerisms and even fools his most trusted advisers and some family members. It will end tragically, of course. Shingen’s decoy commits entirely to the task of assuming Takeda Shingen’s mantle. That means accepting his fate as well. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Kinji Fukasaku
This film feels a bit like it was conceived by a child, but at least it was a kid with a very active imagination. A colorful, overlong (133 minutes?!?) would-be supernatural samurai epic, it actually feels a bit more like one of the late ’80s “ninja” films that proliferated in Hong Kong and made their way to American late-night television in short order. The story of a cursed princess who searches for eight mystical warriors/samurai who hold the ability to end her family’s suffering, it happened to reunite Sonny Chiba of The Street Fighter fame with Sue Shiomi, whom he memorably starred alongside in Sister Street Fighter. Legend of the Eight Samurai, on the other hand, is a classic case of overstuffed but fun to look at—gorgeous costumes and moody sets that conjure up elements of gothic horror, with plenty of monsters, magic, historically inaccurate guns, action set-pieces and a plot that is close to incomprehensible regardless of whether you’re watching with subtitles or dubbing. This is a film that should be viewed either late at night with a bunch of whiskey or early in the morning with a bunch of sugar cereal. —Jim Vorel
After more than a century of ceaseless conflict, the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu finally outmaneuvered his rivals and seized power over all of Japan. Naming himself shogun, Ieyasu and his heirs would hold dominion over Japan for nearly three centuries—longer, as of this writing, than the United States has been a sovereign country. Ieyasu moved most of the government from Kyoto to Edo (present-day Tokyo), and so this time in history is called the Edo or the Tokugawa period. With the sudden end of constant war, the samurai class slowly became unmoored. At the same time, Tokugawa declared that Japan would be largely closed to outsiders and that a person could not leave the social class into which he or she was born, facts that contributed to the feeling of society becoming static. Films set in this period wallow in existential uncertainty and cloying social convention. This is the part of our list where you’ll find master-less ronin wandering dusty roads, shifty yakuza gamblers, and steamy costume drama set amidst the backstabbing of the Edo court.
Director: Masaki Kobayashi
During a time when chambara films were pretty much getting churned out regularly, factory settings still showing, heralded auteur and political firebrand Masaki Kobayashi won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes with Harakiri, his heartbreaking take on the “sword-fighting” genre. Many Japanese filmmakers were at a commercial crossroads in the ’50s and ’60s: The studios paying for their projects were built on the bread and butter of genre expectations—particularly of the jidai-geki, or “period piece,” of which the chambara is a sub-set—which could no longer provide the emotional and political bandwidth for the kinds of deeply felt stories they were trying to tell. A few of his contemporaries became icons, like Seijun Suzuki, Yosujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, who all broke free from their expectations as studio filmmakers to exercise a new creative freedom apart from tradition. They created their own traditions, building myths from the ruins of their reality. And so, in Kobayashi’s tale of poor ronin Hanshiro (Tatsuya Nakadai), who sets out to take elaborate revenge on the feudal ruler who essentially forced his son-in-law to commit ritualistic suicide using nothing but a bamboo sword (in perhaps one of the most grueling scenes of chambara cinema), the director rails against the institutions of his time. Hanshiro isn’t just fighting a clan of samurai, he’s fighting the hierarchical structures that drove massive wedges between Japanese political and social groups in the ’50s and ’60s. He’s fighting the zaibatsus, or corporations, that set up their own kind of modern mid-century feudalism. He’s fighting the film industry that takes a singular vision and stamps it beneath consumerism. He’s fighting the hypocrisy of codes and systems that do anything but foster community. And, in tune with the best chambara the decade had to offer, his fight is a spectacularly beautiful one. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Kenji Mizoguchi
In case it bears mentioning: This is The 47 Ronin, not 47 Ronin. So, in other words, this is the template-shaping Kenji Mizoguchi movie, the movie that served and still serves as the basis for a samurai sub-genre, not the pre-John Wick Keanu Reeves flick that stank up theaters at the end of 2013. (Sorry Keanu. We love you lots, but lord above, that was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad movie.) Every “samurai seeks revenge” film, or “samurai on a mission” film, or “samurai on a mission seek revenge” film owes a great debt to Mizoguchi’s work, which itself owes a debt to history, both real-world and theatrical, being an adaptation of Seika Mayama’s stage interpretation of the Ako incident. Basically, back in the 18th century in Japan, a company of samurai, left leaderless and disgraced when law compelled their lord to commit seppuku, decided to team up and get revenge for his death. It’s kind of the stuff of legend, and by “kind of,” I mean “definitely.”
Mizoguchi’s version of events is shaped around mythologizing this tale through elevated camera angles; the film is shot from above, if only just, and in panoramic shots that give the film a sense of necessary scale and folkloric oomph. That’s the only way to properly bring this story to life: Through grandeur of craft rather than through grandeur of awful, pixelated FX. —Andy Crump
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
And here’s another take on the tale of the 47 Ronin. There might not be a more Japanese tale than Chushingura, which roughly and inadequately translates as “The Treasury of Loyal Retainers.” This is one entry that has been adapted so many times that it bears clarification that we refer to the 1962 Inagaki version, a mighty three hours in running time and featuring who else but Toshiro Mifune in a relatively minor role as swordsman Gemba. Based on historical events, the story follows a young lord in the 18th Century who is killed due to court intrigue and his 47 samurai retainers stripped of their titles and made to be ronin. The honorable thing to do in such cases is normally to just commit seppuku and join your lord in death. In a display of absurd dedication, the 47 spend two years acting like incorrigible dogs to lull their lord’s killer into complacency. This all culminates in the samurai raiding their lord’s killer’s castle by night and exacting their venomous revenge, then committing seppuku.
Inagaki’s adaptation is noteworthy for its lavish color, traditional staging, and truly epic length. It is very slow, plodding, and the action comes seemingly from out of nowhere. Even when lined up in this list, it still may be one of the most quintessentially Japanese films you ever see. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Akira Kurosawa
A wandering ronin strides into a mean, dying town and into the middle of a blood feud between two gangs. For no reason we can determine, he decides he’ll play both sides against one another and wring as much money out of these awful people as he can.
Yojimbo is a wry, vicious classic of action cinema, and one of the building blocks on which Sergio Leone built the “Dollars Trilogy” that inaugurated the Spaghetti Western genre. Toshiro Mifune’s effortlessly cool antihero—also a Man With No Name—belongs in the same pantheon of cinematic bad dudes as Bogart’s Rick Blaine or Eastwood’s Blondie. Yojimbo essentially introduced chambara to the West, burning the blueprint of the amoral, individualistic antihero at odds with the chivalric samurai mold into the minds of the Westerners who would eagerly pay it homage.
Mifune’s wily ronin is all the more interesting because under the mercenary mentality and superhuman resolve, he’s got a beating heart. As Kurosawa once said, we’re all meek in the face of evil, so the hero of the film is extraordinary because he sees two bad entities and yet stands squarely in the middle without fear. But resolute as his character is, the film ends with Mifune telling a terrified young underling who earlier insisted on living fast and dying young the most important lesson: “A long life eating porridge is best.” —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Whether you prefer Sanjuro to Yojimbo depends on the particularities of your tastes, sort of like whether you prefer Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. If you’re more fond of anti-hero stories that study the anti-hero through their interior, then Yojimbo is more likely your cup of tea; if you favor the inverse approach, where the anti-hero is viewed through the eyes of other characters rather than through the anti-hero’s, then you’ll probably lean toward Sanjuro instead. (You can probably guess which way I lean, based on the fact that I’m writing about the latter rather than the former.)
Sanjuro is about swagger, the mythological facade a person builds for themselves to dazzle and captivate onlookers. As opposed to the steely, cunning, relentlessly vicious Sanjuro of Yojimbo, the Sanjuro of Sanjuro is confident to the point of coming off as a roguish loudmouth, a Japanese forebear to American characters such as Ash Williams. Both versions of Sanjuro are intelligent, preternaturally lethal with a sword, and also unkempt to a degree that’s very nearly dashing. (Or maybe that’s a product of Toshiro Mifune’s irrepressible charm.) But the swordsman-trickster we meet in Sanjuro feels like a braggart: He’s dangerous, but his proclivity for boasting belies exactly how dangerous he is. That’s the key to Sanjuro, the component that distinguishes it from Yojimbo. We, and Sanjuro’s naive allies, think we have the right idea of what he is, but as we’re reminded in the film’s climax, what he is turns out to be is unworthy of our admiration. —Andy Crump
Director: Kenji Misumi
Blind, doddering and soft-spoken, the masseur Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) doesn’t look like he can butcher entire gangs of swordsmen. The fact that he can, that his meekness is just a deception hiding an unstoppable, righteous whirlwind of dismemberment, is the reason The Tale of Zatoichi spawned 26 films, the vast majority of them starring Katsu in the title role. The stories wallow in the dirt and danger of the Edo Period, when crime and intrigue replaced the war and treachery of the samurai as the greatest dangers to the common folk. The zato, or anma (masseurs, a role traditionally for the blind), of feudal Japan were considered lowly and servile. If Toshiro Mifune’s famous Sanjuro samurai-with-no-name is the genre’s strutting badass, Katsu’s Ichi is a far more deceptive and cunning champion of the underdog. This inaugural romp sees Ichi hired by local toughs as the ringer in a gang war, and introduces the world to his humble-looking walking stick and the nasty blade it conceals. It’s a slashing, clashing, gritty start to a cinema phenomenon. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
A crossover was inevitable, wasn’t it? By 1970, Shintaro Katsu had portrayed the blind masseur/swordsman Ichi more than a dozen times since his 1962 debut. Toshiro Mifune, the nameless ronin of Kurosawa’s earth-shaking Yojimbo (1961) had likewise made an indelible mark on the jidaigeki film genre. The Edo Period’s milieu of a Japan more or less frozen in time, when samurai and peasant alike labored under a repressive caste system overseen by the Shogun, was the perfect backdrop for members of a proud warrior caste to wander about unmoored. It’s too bad that this is the movie where these two characters had to meet. Katsu’s Zatoichi is as disarmingly human and shockingly competent as ever, but Mifune’s character is revealed to both have a name and be working for the Shogun—two things utterly antithetical to his earlier iconic bad boy character. Despite this—and a plot hinging far too much on an evil scheme that involves devaluing currency, for goodness sake—it’s a joy to see two charismatic actors play off one another in roles that fit them as tightly as a katana in its sheath. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Amidst the unrest and corruption of the late Edo Period, the famous kabuki actor Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa, reprising his role from an original 1935 production), who specializes in portraying women encounters the men who drove his mother and father to madness and suicide. He puts his lifetime of training in stage and the sword to use, sowing the distrust that will drive his enemies to madness, penury, and ruin. Revenge of a Kabuki Actor is no less weird and dreamlike if you happen to know that during the Edo Period, actors like Yukinojo were required to dress and act like women even when not on stage. The staging makes use of isolated set dressings and lighting that leaves the surroundings cloaked in shadow, evoking the art form Yukinojo uses to beguile and destroy his enemies. Underestimated at every turn—even as his skill and charisma open doors for him—Yukinojo’s noxious quest treats old rivals, innocent maidens, wily thieves and even the shogun himself as what they are: Obstacles standing in the way of his revenge. You’ve seen plenty of heroes lay waste to their haughty foes before. Yukinojo does it backwards in heels. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Masahiro Shinoda
“The world is solidly at peace. Not even the air moves,” muses one oily samurai as he lingers in the rain-swept home of a lonely wife whose lord is living a year away from home at the court of the shogun. He happens to be there seducing her, and she’s having none of it. Gonza the Spearman is set in 1735, more than a hundred years into the Edo period, when samurai wondered just what a warrior is when he has no war to fight. The samurai sit about, gambling, smoking, drinking and openly scoffing at the fact that it’s easier to win promotions and raises from mastering tea ceremonies, considering the lack of any actual fighting. Inevitably, their passions, desires and petty grievances are punished by the stifling, unforgiving way of life under the shogun, in which performing an intricate tea ceremony improperly can bring dishonor to a perfectly capable samurai. There is only one scene of violence in Gonza, long-delayed but as sickeningly inevitable as it is graphic. The movie ends on that same ridiculously intricate tea ceremony, and the face of an orphaned girl as she impassively pretends that all of this is just fine. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Kurosawa’s films almost always feature a character who stubbornly has his own way in the face of the wicked. The eponymous “Akahige” (Toshiro Mifune in one of his most memorable roles) doesn’t come on screen until several minutes into the film. A young aspiring doctor shows up at his clinic, learns that he is to be apprenticed there, and sees the utterly miserable state of the destitute people Akahige takes in. His presence, and the respect his patients have for him, is felt before he finally invites his young, reluctant apprentice into the room and gives him a long, severe stare from behind a truly epic beard. What follows are revealing lessons about the nature of inequality and self interest, as Akahige’s young intern does his best to adapt from a life where he expected to be caring for the Shogun to one in which he helps the lowest of the low. Akahige is about somehow maintaining one’s patience and compassion in a world that seems determined to test both. Akahige is more than equal to the task of training his young protégé, however. —Kenneth Lowe
Years: 1972 – 1974 (Lone Wolf and Cub series) and 1980 (Shogun Assassin)
Directors: Kenji Misumi, Buichi Saito, Yoshiyuki Kuroda and Robert Houston (Shogun Assassin)
Every culture’s canon has its own errant badass who wanders a rotten world and mows down the unrighteous. Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayama) is the samurai genre’s definitive specimen in the Lone Wolf and Cub series, which encompassed six films from 1972 – 1974, respectively subtitled Sword of Vengeance, Baby Cart at the River Styx, Baby Cart to Hades, Baby Cart in Peril, Baby Cart in the Land of Demons and White Heaven in Hell. The reason the words “baby cart” keep showing up is that Itto—the shogun’s chosen executioner—is wandering the world on a protracted quest for revenge with his infant son in tow. Parts from the first and second films were condensed and brought to the United States in 1980 under a classically cheesy dub and retitled Shogun Assassin, the opening narration of which will be familiar to fans of the GZA’s album Liquid Swords. Itto swears revenge against the assassins who murdered his wife and framed him for treason against the shogun in a bid for their clan’s supremacy.
The Lone Wolf and Cub series may be known for baby Daigoro’s bulletproof death-trap of a baby cart and for Itto’s absurdly violent swordsmanship, but this series is mean at its core in far darker ways. Early on, Itto makes his oblivious son choose between a bitter life of vengeance or the sweet, sweet release of death by putting a sword and a ball on the floor and observing which token the infant crawls toward. We have no trouble believing Itto’s remorse when little Daigoro’s unwittingly chooses the former. Itto foreswears all honor and propriety to walk a path of certain damnation. Across six ultraviolent films, that way is long and paved with his butchered foes. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Takashi Koizumi
Surely not every wandering ronin was a terse, violent jerk. Akira Kurosawa’s final screenplay tells the story of Ihei (Akira Terao) and his wife Tayo (Yoshiko Miyazaki), roaming the lands in search of work. As heavy rains trap them in a town, Ihei keeps running afoul of situations that demand he draw his sword despite his peaceful and easygoing nature. After the Rain is a movie about decency and how it can get an honest man in trouble in a cynical time. The production seems in many ways to be a final celebration of Kurosawa’s massive contribution to Japanese and world cinema, through the lens of the genre in which he was most prolific. The major difference between this film and many of the master’s own is that its hero is no morally conflicted pragmatist or cold-blooded sword saint. He’s a man who wants to do good, even at his own expense. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Dora-heita winks at the audience from the beginning, and has the good sense to keep the blood to a minimum so as not to spoil the fun. Akira Kurosawa’s script sends loyal retainer Koheita (Koji Yakusho, cheery and game in a role years before his appearance in 13 Assassins) to clean up a crime-ridden cesspit of a red light district in a dirty little corner of the country. Knowing he faces an uphill battle against the violence of vicious yakuza and the entrenched corruption among the feckless bureaucrats in charge, Koheita adopts the nickname “Dora-heita,” (“alley cat” in Japanese, meaning a playboy), and purposely spreads false rumors of his own ineptitude and womanizing tendencies just so his enemies underestimate him. It’s a hard moment in anyone’s life the first time he or she faces down a room full of complacent old jerks who insist that the horrible state of affairs can’t be changed—all while, unspoken, is the understanding that they benefit from the arrangement as it stands. The movie knows that in a world of pimps and mobsters, the men in that room are the real villains. The fact Koheita never once wets his blade with the blood of his enemies—preferring either intricate judo or the blunt edge of his sword—is just one more cathartic insult to his foes. For a samurai, death is glorious, but the indignity of a good spanking is universal. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Told across a couple of tense, snowbound weeks inside the Shogun’s castle in Edo in 1860, Samurai Assassin is loosely based on the brutal, real historical assassination of Ii Naosuke, the grownup pulling the strings of a teenage Shogun. Toshiro Mifune returns as the lowly but determined ronin Niiro, the bastard of an unnamed lord whose only ambition is to make a name for himself at any cost. Niiro falls in with the conspirators who are intent on murdering Ii and finds himself drawn into the group’s ruthless culture of betrayal and paranoia. The film is guilty of dumping a lot of exposition through uninterestingly shot dialogue, but it all culminates in a truly gruesome melee, with dozens of swordsmen trading chaotic blows amidst a snowstorm. Shot in black and white, the film’s violence may take a while in arriving, but when it does it is stark and terrible. Viewers may see the awful, Arthurian twist coming long before it arrives, but the grim message of the story still hits hard: There’s something rotten in a culture in which friend murdering friend and son murdering father is all just part of the game. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Hideo Gosha
Following the release of 1966’s The Secret of the Urn, a critically successful albeit creatively frustrating project for Hideo Gosha due in large part to invasive creative constraints imposed upon by producer Mikio Ogawa, his follow-up film Samurai Wolf marked the director’s much-welcomed return to the form of monochromatic chambara. The film follows an itinerant, layabout swordsman named Kiba (played by a then-fledgling Isao Natsuyagi) who is contracted by a blind waystation boss to protect a shipment of gold from a competing group of assassin couriers. Samurai Wolf’s spaghetti western roots are apparent from the jump, with a wailing harmonica theme underscoring shots of Kiba wolfing down bowls of steamed rice, flecks of grain peppering the hairs of his unkempt beard. Natsuyagi is no Mifune, but what he lacks in the latter’s inimitable screen presence he makes up for in his raw charisma and penchant for the comedic. Kiba’s exaggerated expressions and easygoing demeanor render him a likable protagonist that later yields to his formidable improvisational ruthlessness as a combatant. Samurai Wolf’s fights are characteristic in their usage of exaggerated slow-motion sequences punctuated with sharp, diegetic stings of clashing swords and squelching wounds. The film is typically thought to be one of the director’s most uncharacteristic films, largely for its occasional lightheartedness compared to Gosha’s more cynical and aggressive portrayals of corruption and violence. Gosha never managed to achieve the level of esteem and recognition bestowed on the likes of Kurosawa, but the years since his passing in 1992 have seen a significant reappraisal of his work. Samurai Wolf is an entertaining action film with a curious blend of levity and viscerality all its own and worthy addition to any serious chambara fan’s collection. —Toussaint Egan
Director: Hideo Gosha
Let no one hesitate to ever include Tatsuya Nakadai in all discussions regarding the greatest Japanese actors of his era, so indelible is his voice, his stare, his impregnable presence: Be it the beleaguered father of Harakiri or the ambitious demagogue of Hitokiri (not to mention in era-defining works from Ichikawa, Okomoto and Teshigahara), within incomprehensibly constricted amounts of industry time, Nakadai came to embody the infinitely subtle gradations of the period film, the ways in which Japanese directors especially were able to work inside the studio system to both define and completely reimagine what genre film could be. In Goyokin, Nakadai eats up Gosha’s screen, saying little but carrying every image, whether Gosha wants to toy with darkness (the flashes of swords his blistering sources of light) or stage an elaborate drum circle which completely devours the whole film, its rhythms seemingly mimicking Nakadai’s increasingly visceral intensity. The story, of course, is simple, as Gosha imagines how standard bureaucratic greed infects (or fails to) the simpler, purer hearts of men—infused with the director’s penchant for painting the downfall of the samurai class as an earned, humanistic flaw—but Nakadai complicates every straightforward plot point and dynamic, laying bare the sea change so many director’s dipped into when approaching chambara cinema at the end of the ’60s. And in the end, into the unknown wilderness Nakadai’s character goes, as do many of Gosha’s heroes, knowing that they are figures meant to be replaced rather than rebooted. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Have superhero movies burned you out? Do you need a break from big-screen commotions involving costumed men and women flying about all higgledy piggledy, blasting one another with computer-generated energy blasts or slugging it out with their bare hands? Are you itching to place the blame for the modern theatrical glut of comic book franchise films somewhere? In contemporary terms you can just fault The Avengers, but in a classical context, you might need to go back to 1954 and Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. one of the most influential movies ever made and an ur-text for both “men on a mission” and underdog films, Kurosawa’s film informs titles ranging from The Magnificent Seven to Bonnie and Clyde, and even the odd kids’ story, a la A Bug’s Life. But Seven Samurai isn’t great because of its influence; rather, it’s the other way around, a movie whose towering brilliance is validated by the medium’s habit of aping it since its release. Kurosawa’s film is an epic that deserves to be designated as such, a tale whose grand scale encompasses humble ambitions. —Andy Crump
Director: Takeshi Kitano
Takeshi Kitano is Japan’s jack of all trades, a filmmaker who’s as comfortable generating slow-burning yakuza flicks as he is making arthouse enigmas like Takeshis’ or comedies like Glory to the Filmmaker! With Zatoichi, he manages to do all three at once and have a grand old time in the process. Maybe it’s off-putting to describe a film in which gangsters get sliced and diced like so many veggies as “joyful,” but such is Zatoichi’s weirdly ebullient tone. And why wouldn’t it be? Shintaro Katsu’s screen vision of the blind swordsman is a national treasure; Kitano totally vibes with that, and the result is as much a celebration of the character as it is a terrific modern chambara film. —Andy Crump
Director: Takashi Miike
An adaptation of Seven Samurai more in spirit than in tone and plot, Miike’s 13 Assassins is a sprawling bloodbath of mythic proportions—so, in other words, nothing new for the Japanese auteur. What Miike later expounded upon with his faithful adaptation of Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri (also available on Netflix streaming) he began here, translating classic chambara films into neo-realistic accounts of a gritty, painful time for Japanese culture, making historical epics literally eviscerating experiences. Long and grueling, 13 Assassins could easily be Miike’s best film—a high honor coming from such a multifaceted and unsettling filmmaker—but the film is worth watching if only for the moment when the phrase “TOTAL MASSACRE” makes its reappearance. Just … goose bumps. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Machibuse marks many “lasts” for all those involved. It was the last of Toshiro Mifune’s “Yojimbo” films—in which he played the nameless bodyguard/warrior, who’d both influence Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name and practically define a whole era of genre films—and it was director Hiroshi Inagaki’s last feature before the Japanese film industry practically decided he was an obsolescing figure and his particular brand of artistry (the lavish period film, his work inspiring such masters as Kenji Mizoguchi) no longer worth the slimming profit margins. Inagaki’s alcoholism apparently ushered him to his death in 1980, after a decade of little activity, but Machibuse still stands as a towering final say on the samurai film—not because of its sweeping scope, but in spite of the genre’s tendency toward grandiose historical breadth. In it, keeping Yojimbo’s story contained and elemental, Inagaki has Mifune’s man of very few words take on a job which takes him to a small mountain town, and a small tea shop within that mountain town, wherein everything that happens isn’t at first what it seems—and everyone he meets is more than he assumed. It’s a touching end for Mifune’s character as much as it is an optimistic one for Inagaki, his filmmaking honed to its essentials to get to the question living within the marrow of most of samurai cinema over the past century. Between duty and the deeper demands of an emotional life, what is really worth fighting for? —Dom Sinacola
Director: Hideo Gosha
Man, Hideo Gosha sure does have a thing for rogue samurai and the revenge they visit upon the corrupt. A double feature of Sword of the Beast and Three Outlaw Samurai feels a little obvious, but there’s so much of each in the other that you’d be a fool not to compare them head-on: It’s fascinating, if nothing else, to observe the ways the latter informed the shape of the former. Yes, sure, there’s a consistent through line connecting the two, a thread about honor and dishonor among the samurai class. It’s Gosha’s enduring critique that maybe people who believe honor is accorded merely by title and not by actions really aren’t all that honorable. Those who define their honor through force of character rather than force of cunning present as better role models, though of course they’re typically forced to go on the run from authority when authority tricks them into committing, say, treason, as happens to Gosha’s rebel samurai Gennosuke in Sword of the Beast.
The good news is that Gennosuke is a pretty darn good fighter. He’s so good that the film occasionally imparts comical qualities on his pursuers. You could insert the Benny Hill theme song in Sword of the Beast’s opening credits without missing a beat, for instance, as Gennosuke outruns a swarm of enemies struggling to keep pace with him. He’s a prototypical samurai badass. By the time the film arrives at its climax, where Gennosuke cuts down a handful of goons in a gorgeous forest setting, all incidental laughter has died down in favor of awestruck appreciation for characters like him, and for Gosha’s knack for finding great locations for staging violence. —Andy Crump
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
How many samurai movies are there that wrap plot threads around recurring sword fight scenes until it’s nigh-impossible to figure out who’s fighting for whom, or against whom, or why anyone has to fight for or against anyone at all? And how many samurai movies are there in existence where a wandering samurai, who is either masterless, unscrupulous, jaded, or some combination of the three, decides to involve himself in the travails of warring clans and elected officials? Quite a lot, it turns out, and some of them happen to be based on the same source novel as one another. See: Kihachi Okamoto’s Kill!, which he adapted from the same Shugoro Yamamoto text that Akira Kurosawa turned to for inspiration when making Sanjuro.
But that’s not to say Kill! is anything like Sanjuro apart from basic, fundamental details common to the samurai genre. It’s very nearly comical, at least if you find a cynical critique of codes of conduct and honor comical. It’s better to think of Kill! as straight-up satire of its category, where disillusioned ex-samurai Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai), a bristled and bristly man weighed down by self-consciousness, crosses paths with a farmer, Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi), who would like nothing more than to free himself from his daily routine by becoming a samurai. And therein lies the film’s great joke: Maybe being a samurai looks glamorous at a glance, but up close there’s nothing glamorous at all about a profession where self-preservation is of the utmost importance and duty comes in a very, very distant second. —Andy Crump
Years: 1954 – 1956
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
The Seven Samurai gets a lot of mainstream credit for being the samurai movie’s defining epic, but we should probably fix that and give equal kudos to Hiroshi Inagaki’s massive, three-chapter chronicle of the life and times of Miyamoto Musashi, a legendary swordsman and the author of The Book of the Five Rings, essentially a text devoted to the subject of kicking ass. Maybe the comparison to The Seven Samurai isn’t fair to The Seven Samurai: That’s a single three-hour movie in contrast to three movies each in the ballpark of ninety to a hundred and forty minutes in length. Simply put, The Samurai Trilogy is epic defined, wrought as cinema that helped shape the samurai film alongside Kurosawa’s watershed picture. (It’s worth noting that the first chapter of Inagaki’s trilogy, Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto, opened in 1954, the same year as Seven Samurai. It’s only natural to stack the two against each other.)
The Samurai Trilogy is a work of enduring maturity, capturing Musashi’s arc of growth as a fencer, and as a man, over the course of years spent dueling, studying and tending his very soul. The films alternate between mediation and action, both in context as individual movies and as parts of a greater whole; Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple in particular emphasizes action more than its siblings, ending with a massive battle between Musashi and a horde of bad guys in need of a few sword slashes apiece. But even so, that movie can’t help being about tenets of samurai discipline, and the search for self-improvement through marriage of mind and body. Combined, Inagaki’s films make up the most sweeping, romantic and rigorous production of its kind, bolstered by what’s arguably the most sophisticated and nuanced performance of Toshiro Mifune’s career. —Andy Crump
Director: Kasaki Kobayashi
If you feel like seeing double, you could either throw back a fifth of whiskey or you could skip the hangover entirely and just watch Masaki Kobayashi’s Samurai Rebellion back to back with Harakiri. One the one hand, they’re not the exact same film. On the other, they’re pretty damn close. You may wonder why Kobayashi bothered making the former after the latter, in light of their obvious similarities, but that’s a discredit to his talents as a director. Samurai Rebellion, rather than merely mimic Harakiri’s themes and story, actually expands their urgency with simple, invisible gestures, putting a century between them and focusing more on the domestic fallout of political demands. It’d be a stretch to call Samurai Rebellion a family movie, but it’s oriented around family much more directly, which enhances the tragedy at its center. Whether you prefer this over Harakiri, or vice versa, there’s a valuable lesson to learn from their duality: There’s nothing wrong with filmmakers returning to creative ground they’ve trod before. —Andy Crump
Director: Hideo Gosha
I’m a proponent of film over television, because films eventually end. But films like Hideo Gosha’s Three Outlaw Samurai force me to acknowledge, if grudgingly, that television’s perpetuity is a boon as much as a bummer. You probably won’t be able to watch the film’s small-screen progenitor—not easily, anyways, as the show’s cardinal seasons were allegedly lost—and that’s just going to make the experience of watching the film something of a taunt: “That’s it, sucker! That’s all you get.” If Gosha’s leading men, Tetsuro Samba, Isamu Nagato and Mikijiro Hira, weren’t so damn magnetic, individually and collectively, this likely wouldn’t matter as much, and Three Outlaw Samurai would likely remain a rousing entertainment. But they’re all such compelling actors, and their characters so economically shaped, that we aren’t contented just to watch them wander off into the sunset toward future adventures we’ll never see. We want to spend more time with them, disloyal as they may be.
Gosha’s characters are ardent believers in their right to change their minds and allegiances, a natural evolution of post-war samurai film’s tendency to divorce honor from fealty, and he’s a nimble enough filmmaker that keeping track of who’s on whom’s side is a breeze (though this is almost certainly because Gosha makes it so obvious whose side he’s on from the word go). It’s a surprise that Three Outlaw Samurai doesn’t carry higher esteem among the titans of its category, and a sad surprise at that, but whether well-recognized or not, it’s no less essential. —Andy Crump
Director: Yoji Yamada
Indictments of samurai customs are common in samurai cinema (and if you’re reading this list, you’ve probably picked up on that by now). Few such indictments feel as bittersweet as The Hidden Blade, yet another masterwork from Yoji Yamada, arguably today’s most important, filmmaker working in the genre. (In fairness, the guy hasn’t made a samurai movie in about ten years. His most recent effort is What a Wonderful Family!, a 2016 comedy flick about a woman who asks for a divorce from her husband as a gift on her 50th birthday. Cheery!) Like The Twilight Samurai, The Hidden Blade downplays the traditions of its genre and instead fastens samurai iconography to a love story and an historical drama, set around the point in Japanese history where samurai culture gave up the ghost.
Who sets a samurai movie during the tail end of the Edo period, when Japan’s military grew to favor the tools of modernized warfare at the cost of samurai martial prowess? Maybe you need an artist like Yamada to update samurai stories by taking them out of their subjects’ heydays and examining them from a different moment in time. He has a gift for reframing our expectations of samurai films, and an abiding compassion for the characters at the center of his narratives, save for those guilty of trampling poor unfortunates under malfeasant rule. Yamada has much more fun in The Hidden Blade than you’d guess, though; he peppers Masatoshi Nagase’s struggle to familiarize himself with cannons and guns with sly, but never cruel, humor. There’s a fish out of water undercurrent to the film’s overcurrents of social disillusionment that’s uncharacteristic of samurai chronicles and yet also totally in keeping with Yamada’s habit of humanizing these heavily mythologized figures. The Hidden Blade is heartbreaking, but maintains warmth in spite of its documented anguish. —Andy Crump
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Otherwise known as Life of an Expert Swordsman. If you consider Hiroshi Inagaki’s film by unpacking its alternate title, the thing takes on a mildly disheartening meaning: The life of an expert swordsman is to be lived firmly in the friend zone. Such is Inagaki’s interpretation of the Edmond Rostand play, Cyrano de Bergerac, a romantic fable whose protagonist is in love with a woman who only likes him in exchange. But such is his love for her that he decides to help the man she does love win her hand. Life of an Expert Swordsman follows along this track, more or less, recalibrating itself as necessary to suit its culture, time and era, and also outfitting its leading man, Toshiro Mifune, with a nose to match that of Rostand’s own hero. The effect is perhaps less impressive on screen than in text, but schnozzes are hardly chief among the film’s concerns. Mifune’s performance, by contrast, is, and he dominates the screen for the bulk of Samurai Saga’s running time, as an actor with his kind of presence can’t help doing. —Andy Crump
Director: Hiroyuki Nakano
I think of Samurai Fiction more fondly than most genre purists might; it’s undoubtedly a samurai film, but it lacks in weight. It’s a coming-of-age story more than anything else, the tale of a young samurai (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) who goes on a quest to reclaim a family heirloom and ends up taking a journey of self-discovery, as well. It’s not that swordplay and seriousness aren’t part of the movie’s scheme. It’s that director Hiroyuki Nakano has other sensations on his mind, and other ways of achieving those goals than through samurai film traditions. Samurai Fiction is about charm and warmth, a work of levity rather than gravity that’s driven by its rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, the product of Tomoyasu Hotei, a.k.a. Hotei, a.k.a. one of Japan’s most iconic musicians and one of its most talented guitarists. That alone infuses Samurai Fiction with its own anarchic, modernist spirit, and if you need a reason to watch a samurai flick that’s less oriented on action, that’s it. —Andy Crump
Director Hideo Gosha
As with much of the director’s late ’60s work, Gosha’s The Secret of the Urn begins with a moral struggle which only ends once the person at the heart of it has traced such existential progress in a long trail of the dead. In this case, the embattled soul is that of Tange Sazen (Kinnosuke Nakamura), a one-eyed, one-armed “monster” mutilated by both his closest friend and the authorities to whom he pledged allegiance (each taking a precious bit of anatomy). He escapes the film’s opening attack to drunkenly roam the land as a sort of anti-samurai, not only because he’s ronin, but because he holds zero stakes in either side of the giri-ninjo divide. He’s nihilistic—no sense of martial duty, nor of humanism—and so becomes another perfect vessel through which Gosha examines the end of the Edo period, a time during which all known social structures, all understood ways of organizing life, lost every discernible ounce of meaning, and the Japanese were forced to determine what kinds of empirical values lay below the feudal state that had solidified and then become immutable over 200 years.
In the film, the titular “Earless Monkey Urn” serves as Gosha’s McGuffin, juggled between factions under the Shogunate and amidst a series of mistaken identity and double-crossings, ultimately becoming the object Sazen is ready to risk his life to obtain. When asked by his cronies as to why he still pursues the urn, even though there’s nothing in it for him, he answers with equal befuddlement, admitting that he’s not entirely sure, that his missing right eye and right arm bid him to do so. “Don’t laugh at me, but it was after I turned into a monster that I came to realize the ridiculousness of being a samurai,” he tells his cohorts. And yet, Gosha isn’t a nihilist: Sazen eventually chooses to follow his ninjo, returning the urn to its rightful owners and saving the lives of his friends by giving up everything and willingly going into exile. Sazen tells a stubborn boy, an orphan who only dreams of being a mighty samurai like his mysterious hero, “Samurai aren’t strong at all. They just carry swords so they can kill people. Don’t ever think that’s being strong.” No longer is the soul of the soldier evaluated in violence, Gosha seems to be implying, but in sacrifice. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Tomu Uchida
It’s rough, being a samurai; it’s rough being samurai-adjacent, too, especially when your master turns into a major pain in the ass whenever he gets sloshed. Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji plays in a fairly typical samurai sandbox when boiled down to themes, but unlike a percentage of samurai films of its era, this Tomu Uchida joint is built on humor and charm that carries the plot for the first hour. After that, all of the legwork done in service to character and tone pays off with a whole lot of violent, well-executed action in its finale, as Genpachi (Chiezo Kataoka), servant to the samurai Sakawa Kojuro (Eijiro Kataoka), doles out harshness at spear-point. Injustice recurs as a motif throughout the canon of samurai cinema; here, it intersects with concerns about class, specifically the idea that two people from different backgrounds can’t also be friends. There is, of course, much more to Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji than that, but Uchida sees division in class as the ultimate inequity, an ugliness that he contrasts with beautiful cinematography and a bevy of terrific performances from his cast. I’m not sure of Uchida’s standing among his peers in samurai fame, but if Bloody Spear at Mount Fuji isn’t considered a masterpiece, then it ought to be. —Andy Crump
In 1853, Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the U.S. Navy sailed into Edo Bay with four warships, demanded Japan open itself up to trade, and shelled the bejeezus out of some buildings to prove he meant business. To say it kicked off a century of animosity between the two countries would be an understatement. It also signaled a beginning of the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This culminated in the toppling of the shogunate and a return to power of the emperor. After a civil war that ended in 1868 with the resignation of the last Tokugawa shogun, Emperor Meiji became Japan’s de facto ruler and instituted numerous reforms to modernize the country—and incidentally brought the age of the samurai to a decisive end. Films set in this period feature stories loosely based on real episodes of espionage and revolution, the conflict between tradition and modernity, and sober reflections on the passing of an age as obsolete samurai come to grips with a new world.
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
“The sword is the soul. Study the soul to know the sword. Evil mind, evil sword.” All you need to know about Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom, you can unpack from a single line, its most stunning and memorable. Sure, it helps to have great dialogue, it helps to have a great actor reciting your dialogue, but it helps most of all when your dialogue reframes your movie entirely, and this is exactly what Toshiro Mifune’s class rebuke to the damned antihero at the center of Okamoto’s jidaigeki masterpiece does.
The Sword of Doom can be boiled down to two sequences: The above-mentioned scene in which Mifune’s master swordsman, Shimada Toranosuke, cuts through about two or so dozen samurai in a half-assed attempt on his life, orchestrated by said damned antihero, an amoral samurai named Ryunosuke Tsukue; and its ending, where Ryunosuke hacks through an oiran house full of gangsters, seemingly unstoppable even as he sustains injuries. The only way to stop him? A freeze-frame to bring the film to a sudden, jolting finish. The Sword of Doom is all about a man’s ego, his foolish sense of invincibility, and the thundering strike to his ego that ultimately bursts his bubble. In Shimada, Ryunosuke sees his better, and in so doing sees his own mortality, and in the courtesan house he sees his sins coming full circle to haunt him. No samurai film captures sudden insanity, begotten by grief, quite so well as this one. —Andy Crump
Directors: Kenji Misumi (I & II) and Kazuo Mori (III)
Sword of Doom is the more fleet adaptation of this same story, but in 1960, these three violent, haunting films were a longer retelling of the original serial novel by Kaizan Nakazato. If Doom is a tale of arrogance, Satan’s Sword is a tale of a casually violent man’s self-inflicted curse of bloodlust slowly driving him deeper and deeper into destruction and madness.
Ending on thrilling cliffhangers, the movies’ plots have Ryunosuke joining first the shogun’s Shinsengumi assassination squad and later the Tenchu rebels. The souls Ryunosuke leaves in his wake bay for his blood. We watch as he changes allegiances, duels fearsome opponents, and bit by bit becomes more physically and psychologically hobbled. Yet, not even the loss of his vision in an explosion can stop his vicious swordplay skills. The films seem to posit that Ryunosuke’s killing controls him, rather than the other way around. It ends as we know it must—with the murderous swordsman in the giddy grip of what he does best. He will never stop. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Toshiya Fujita
Years: 1973 (Lady Snowblood), 1974 (Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance)
Quentin Tarantino gets flak for his pastiche habits, but when Tarantino steals, he steals from the best. As far as Kill Bill is concerned, that would be Toshiya Fujita, the filmmaker responsible for adapting Kazuo Koike’s chambara manga, Lady Snowblood, to the screen. The director was able to wring two movies out of his source material: 1973’s Lady Snowblood, and 1974’s Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance, the latter of which takes its title from one of its predecessor’s chapters. As with most franchises, the sequel pales next to the original, but if the second verse isn’t quite as good as the first, it’s still leagues better than most revenge movies made in the decades since its release. Yuki Kashima avenges first the murder of her family, and then the corruption of her country. If you’re into spending three hours basking in bloody displays of righteous retribution, you can hardly do better than these two movies. —Andy Crump
Director: Masahiro Shinoda
Mysteriously, agents of the shogun issue a pardon to a murderous ronin despite his apparent loyalty to the Emperor. It soon becomes clear they wish to use him to recruit a small army to resist the Emperor’s attempts to seize more power despite his political leanings. Knowing full well he might betray the shogun at any time, his handler tasks an underling with murdering the ronin should he step out of line. Assassin is a highly fictionalized telling of real-life historical figure Kiyokawa Hachiro (Tetsuro Tamba). The film portrays him as a terse snake of a backstabber, his every motive as shadowy as his face beneath his straw hat and his every move filling his hapless foes with uncertainty and dread. Much of the film unfolds in flashbacks as his enemies recall parts of his life in the hopes of getting at the truth behind the man. Assassin depicts the end of an era and a deeply traditional society in upheaval. At the center of that chaos is Kiyokawa—menacing, deadly and ultimately unknowable. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Tadashi Sawashima
The end of the Shogunate told through the unblinking eyes and stubborn hearts of its fiercest defenders, the story of Shinsengumi is one known well in Japan, which might be why director Tadashi Sawashima offers very little in the way of context or explanation when it comes to those of us (um, Americans) who know next to nothing about Japanese feudalistic history. And yet, the story of a former farmer, Isami Kondo (Toshiro Mifune, nearing the end of his tenure in samurai films with inimitable dignity), who leads a ragtag army of samurai against the encroaching foreign powers and, by extension, the obsolescence of the bushido code in the face of the Emperor’s rise, can still translate with emotional clarity. Duty, family, patriotism and morality spill violently into one another amidst the increasingly complex backdrop of the Edo bakufu’s downfall, and through it all—which Sawashima captures in epic battles marked by intimate details—Mifune stands as a bitterly divided figure, both honorable and despicable, ultimately at the mercy of his internal turmoil. Like much of the samurai films of the late ’60s, Shinsengumi sometimes feels too broad for its own good, but what the film lacks in coherence it more than compensates by drawing from a seemingly bottomless well of empathy for all of its characters, on all of its many sides. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
The Emperor and the Shogun clash for control of the country, but for the Emperor’s lowly foot soldier Gonzo (Toshiro Mifune), the revolution that’s about to end the age of the samurai is the perfect opportunity to borrow a superior officer’s flamboyant headwear and go peacocking about his childhood town. Mifune’s roles almost always have more than a little sparkle of humor to them, but here he’s a stuttering, silly bumbler of a fighter ground down by years of being treated like a simple peasant. There’s violence in this film, but there’s far more slapstick silliness that gladly razzes treacherous Imperial colonels, craven Shogun middlemen, and even the old revolutionary ideologues who convince spirited and untrained young men to go die for their politics. Simpler than all of them and yet truer to the common folk than any of them, Gonzo is a spitting, slashing dervish of populism. He shreds debt notes, liberates prostitutes, redistributes ill-gotten wealth, and generally induces the citizenry to riots and revelry, with no proof of his Imperial legitimacy beyond his good-natured bluster. Many films set in this time period are dour affairs that lament the passing of an age, or at least the good people in it. Red Lion, and Gonzo, openly shout that The Man is always screwing the common folk, whether his flags bear the hollyhock or the chrysanthemum. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Yojiro Takita
After the end of the age of samurai, a wizened old man limps into a doctor’s clinic with his ailing grandson. He glimpses a faded photograph of a samurai, and he and the younger doctor reminisce about the legendary swordsman and the fall of a centuries-old way of life. When the Last Sword Is Drawn tells the story of a humble and emotional samurai from the country, Yoshimura, and his unlikely friendship and rivalry with real-life historical figure (and reputed spy and assassin) Saito Hajime. A heartbreaking story of self-sacrifice and the empty tragedy of the samurai code of honor, the movie is also a period piece centered on the treachery and intrigue of the Shinsengumi, a group largely consisting of “samurai drop-outs,” as the author of the book on which the movie was based puts it. Should a man’s loyalty be to his clan? To his code? To his family? The code of the samurai demands that one die for one’s lord. This movie openly argues that one should live, and that it is no tragedy that an era that made corpses of good men has passed. —Kenneth Lowe
Director: Hideo Gosha
Director Hideo Gosha returns once again to the end of the Edo era (beginning Hitokiri, otherwise known as Tenchu!, in 1862) to, perhaps more explicitly than he had ever before, examine Japanese society in a state of constant flux. Through the red-rimmed, often intoxicated eyes of Okada Izo (Shintaro Katsu), Gosha watches as samurai, peasants, merchants and otherwise innocent folk alike are cut down in sprays and ripples and mushroom clouds of blood, red the only real color amidst Gosha’s muted, autumnal color palette. In between stylized massacre—Gosha flexing, after decades of this stuff, his incomparable ability to both use every ounce of space in his set pieces without making any action (sword slashing, gut gouging, neck slitting, whatever) seem devoid of consequence and human error—Izo transcends poverty as a ronin to become one of the region’s most revered and feared, hitokiri (literally: “man cutter”), navigating the muddled politics and moribund social strata of Japan under the collapsing Tokugawa Shogunate. Meanwhile, as ersatz crime boss Takechi Hanpeita, Tatsuya Nakadai laconically menaces all those within the same frame, and legendary writer Yukio Mishima plays Izo’s mass-murdering rival, Tanaka Shinbei, meeting a brutal end foreshadowing Mishima’s own fate. Taking from the lives of the Four Hitokiri of the Bakumatsu, four samurai (of which Izo and Shinbei were two) considered practically undefeatable during the late Tokugawa Shogunate, Gosha crafted with Hitokiri a chambara biopic of sorts, effortlessly balancing the makings of myths and the truth of the broken souls behind them. —Dom Sinacola
Director: Yoji Yamada
When the fundamentals of a genre or subgenre are so firmly established as they are for samurai films, finding ways of distinguishing your film from the rest poses a challenge. For Yoji Yamada and his 2002 masterpiece The Twilight Samurai, that challenge scarcely registers as challenging at all. The working class samurai may not be either his or the film’s invention, but together they make that character their focal point, hanging an intimate tale of paternal responsibility and masculine identity on the fundamentals of samurai iconography: swordplay and stoicism, and the surface cool born produced by marrying one to the other. There is stoicism here, and there is swordplay, but Yamada isn’t interested in “cool.” He’s interested in honesty.
The Twilight Samurai is the end result of honesty’s pursuit, a grounded film flooded with warmth and a level of relatability that most viewers will never feel about the majority of the genre’s most prized entries. What do we know about the life of a samurai? Little and less. But what do we know about the rigors of balancing a day job with a parent’s responsibilities? Considerably more. Maybe not all of us are single with children, or with an ailing mother, or, God forbid, both, but the particulars of Iguchi Sebei’s unglamorous life as a samurai resonate all the same, in part because of Yamada’s craftsmanship, in part because of Hiroyuki Sanada’s leading performance. (It’s great, by the way, that Sanada has enjoyed so much mainstream love over here in the U.S.A., but if you really want to get to know him as an actor, you’d best go back and watch this movie.) —Andy Crump
Director: Lee Sang-il
And so we’ve come full circle. The Japanese remake of Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Western Unforgiven is an almost beat-for-beat retread of the original’s plot. A grizzled old killer (Ken Watanabe) who has renounced violence for the sake of a sainted and deceased wife is drawn back into a life of murder for hire. It is deeply fitting that the genre which gave Eastwood’s Man With No Name his dance steps would in turn adapt the movie in which Eastwood thoroughly deconstructed the Western. Fans who can’t stop talking about the genre symbiosis between the Western and samurai flick will want to see this movie no matter what. It doesn’t hurt that this is also a thoughtful period piece that looks at its own genre’s end-of-an-era, and that we get to see Eastwood collaborator Watanabe in a role as the violent revenant from a dying age. —Kenneth Lowe